I’ll Venture that You Have Some Very Good Reasons Others Would Like to Hear!
In early November, Anthony Robinson, a United Church of Christ pastor, consultant, and blogger, pointed me to an October 2021 article in Christianity Today that I’ve been pondering all month. The article has the intriguing title “Empty Pews are an American Public Health Crisis.” Obviously the present COVID-19 pandemic and other every-day societal turmoil such as guns, addiction and violence have been related to public health—but now empty pews???!
The gist of the article is this: recent scientific research shows us that people who go to church (worship services) often find their social and personal lives improved—sometimes even find their physical lives saved by this religious practice. Religious participation strongly supports health and wellness. At the same, continuing polling of Americans finds that regular worship attendance and participation in all kinds of religious bodies, denominations, and churches has been plummeting.
In the article, the authors, Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case (two Harvard University professors, Vanderweele a Professor of Epidemiology and the director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program and Case the associate director of research for that program), explain how they interpret these findings as a present and growing public health crisis.
Anthony Robinson authored two blogs on this article that you can find here and here and I encourage you to read them. As Robinson’s blog posts show, there is more to be considered here than I have time and space to consider in this reflection, so I will consider only a small part of what I have been pondering. I hope there will be times and places to consider further conversation on this entire article soon.
Before I proceed, let me be clear about one important consideration that may come to mind as you read the article.
Vanderweele and Case present evidence from their own research as well as other large, well-designed research studies that have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular-disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement for persons who practice such religious participation.
But these are not the reason that most of us would give as to why we associate with a faith community and attend worship regularly when our churches are open for worship.
Vanderweele and Case express their reason with the words “to know and love God as you are known and loved by him.” Robinson expresses it this way: “The primary point is, of course, to honor the holy and practice a way of life that is worth living.” How would you put into words your reason(s) for associating with a local faith community and worshipping there regularly?
Now here’s what I’ve been thinking about that I’d like to lift up in this reflection.
Regarding the waning place of religion in American public life, Vanderweele and Case point to statistics that at least some of us have seen before.
“In 2019, Gallup reported that only 36 percent of Americans view organized religion with ‘a great deal of confidence,’ down from 68 percent in 1975. The study’s authors speculate that this trend has been driven in part by the highly publicized moral failures and crimes of religious institutions and leaders.
The decline in confidence in churches has been accompanied by steep recent
declines in both church membership and attendance. Barna Group found that 10 years ago, in 2011, 43 percent of Americans said they went to church every week. By February of 2020, that had dropped 14 percentage points to 29 percent.”
I expect that if you are like me, you might acknowledge that when we see statistics like these, our immediate reactions are to feel dispirited and a need to defend the church and ourselves. But if we stop and think for a moment, we might admit that such a response is not helpful either to ourselves or others who might be genuinely interested in why we continue to find life and purpose in Christian community life.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that yes, a great many of us who participate in reading these devotions and reflections on TVPrays.org, we are among the 36 percent who view our faith community with ‘a great deal of confidence.’ We are also among the 29 percent who go to church every week (regularly).
Wow! Now isn’t that a miracle! There are still those of us around who find this activity and association life-giving!!! What do we have to say for ourselves? Or, better yet, what do we have to say for the God we worship who loves us, forgives us, and gives purpose and direction to our lives!!!
So often we let our voices be stifled or silenced by all the woe-seekers who keep the focus on the myriad of studies and statistics that show all the negative trends that are happening for our churches. (Now, to the point, these studies/statistics do sometimes raise some very legitimate and serious concerns that we need to hear—a little more on that below.)
It seems to me it is both a time for us to reflect and to speak our truth clearly. Why are you still going to church? Why would only a public health crisis such as COVID (or perhaps a personal health situation or family that needs care) keep you away? Friends, it’s time to sit down with a piece of paper (if that is helpful to you) and jot down what you would say when others ask you the question (above). Or, the opportunity arises for you to share your story (as humble as you may think it to be) in a way that just might inspire someone else come and see what is happening in our churches and being together in Christian community. You have a story that people need to hear—and there is no better time than now to begin to share it!!!
There’s more—much more—in this article to ponder and discuss. It includes what I alluded to above. The 2019 Gallup authors attributed the plunging confidence in religion to the highly publicized moral failure and crimes of religious institutions and leaders. Vanderweele and Case noted that when Americans describe the reasons they seldom or never attend church, people who still think of themselves as Christians are more likely to say they practice their faith in other ways, or they name something that they don’t like about the worship service itself.
To me this says that in addition to our reflection, conversation, and speaking clearly as to why we are practicing Christians, we need to seek out and listen very carefully to those who have abandoned the church. Some have important things to share with us that will be difficult for us to hear. But when we do, we can decide on appropriate actions on our part that might lead toward reconciliation, health, and a fuller life for all of us who are or would be a part of the church going into the future.